Mueller probe said to quicken pace as a key phase nears end
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is moving at a far faster pace than previously known and appears to be wrapping up at least one key part of his investigation -- whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Mueller has quietly moved closer to those around Trump by interviewing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey in recent weeks, officials said. His team has also interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo, NBC News reported.
Those high-level officials all have some degree of knowledge about events surrounding Trump's decisions to fire Comey and Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser.
"Clearly the names that are coming out now indicate that we're into the obstruction of justice side of it," said Stanley Twardy, a former U.S. attorney for Connecticut who's now a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at the law firm Day Pitney. "He's now getting people who are closest to the president, closest to the issues."
Next, Mueller is expected to schedule an interview with Trump in coming weeks to discuss those events, according to a person familiar with the matter.
"I'm looking forward to it," Trump said of a meeting with Mueller, which he suggested may happen in about two to three weeks. He told reporters at the White House Wednesday that "I would love to do it" and "I would do it under oath" even though his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton wasn't sworn in when she was interviewed in 2016 over her use of private emails as secretary of state.
Even if Mueller wraps up the obstruction probe, other elements of his investigation -- such as whether Trump or anyone close to him helped Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election or broke any other laws -- are likely to continue for months more, said two officials who asked to remain anonymous speaking about the probe.
"There's no collusion whatsoever," Trump said in his comments to reporters. "There's been no obstruction whatsoever." Later Wednesday, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said the arrangements for any interview were still being worked out.
Trump lawyer John Dowd released a document Thursday that he said showed "how much this president has done" despite the "false media drumbeat of obstruction." It says more than 20 White House officials have been interviewed by Mueller's team, including eight from the general counsel's office, as have 28 people who worked for the Trump campaign or were affiliated with it.
The White House has turned over 20,000 pages of documents, including more than 5,000 pages related to Flynn and almost 7,800 pages on Comey, according to the memo. It says the Trump campaign turned over 1.4 million pages.
Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor, said "it's fair to say Mueller's moving expeditiously." He said "interviewing this president on these wide-ranging issues is a prosecutor's dream."
"There are several data points out there that point to a viable obstruction of justice charge against the president," said Cramer, who's now managing director of consulting firm Berkeley Research Group. "The interesting thing is you have hubris involved here. This is not a normal president."
Trump's lawyers have said there was no obstruction of justice in the firing of Comey because the president has the right to fire his FBI director and was simply executing his constitutional authority.
The lawyers have been talking with Mueller and his aides about an interview. The lawyers met last month with the special prosecutor's team and have been speaking by phone as part of a continuing exchange over logistics that could take several weeks.
The main topics of an interview would be Trump's removal of Flynn last February and his firing of Comey in March, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Sessions was involved in Trump's decision to fire Comey and attended a key meeting in the Oval Office in February 2017. It was there, Comey told lawmakers last year, that Trump told Sessions and others to leave the room and then asked Comey to ease up on investigating Flynn.
Mueller also has been investigating an attempt by Trump to pressure Coats and Rogers last year to get the FBI to back off of probing into Flynn, the two U.S. officials said. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and has become a cooperating witness in Mueller's probe.
Trump also told reporters that he doesn't remember asking then-FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe whom he voted for in the 2016 presidential election shortly after Comey was fired. The Washington Post reported that the conversation with McCabe is of interest to Mueller.
Mueller was appointed in May and, to date, has indicted Trump's former campaign chairman and another campaign aide, as well as secured guilty pleas from Flynn and another former Trump adviser.
Even if evidence supports an obstruction of justice charge against Trump, however, it's far from clear whether Mueller would bring a criminal case on those grounds. No sitting president has ever faced such a charge and it's unknown if a case could proceed legally.
"I don't think Mr. Mueller would ever try to make legal precedent at the expense of a sitting president in the context of an obstruction of justice charge," Twardy said. He said the biggest concern for Trump in an interview is probably the risk of committing perjury, as Mueller will cross-check his comments and recollection against the testimony and evidence he's obtained from Coats, Comey, Flynn, Sessions and others.
"He wants to hear Trump's side of the story," Twardy said. "It will be important for him to look at Trump's state of mind."
Instead of pursuing criminal charges, Mueller could refer any findings to the Republican-controlled Congress, where a number of inquiries are under way.
But as Mueller's probe has closed in on Trump, his Republican allies -- especially on the House Intelligence Committee -- have amplified their attacks on the FBI and the Russia investigation that Trump has often dismissed as a "witch hunt." The Republican lawmakers allege that the investigation was started on a misleading pretense and has been tainted by anti-Trump bias.
Another House investigation, being conducted jointly by the Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has focused on the FBI's decision to drop a criminal case in 2016 involving Clinton's emails, and the role that partisan bias by FBI personnel may have played in that investigation.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has also pursued bias allegations against the FBI over its handling of the Clinton and Trump probes, but he has defended Mueller's investigation.
"I expect Mueller to do his job," Grassley said Wednesday. "His job is to do the investigation" and go where the facts take him.
After wrapping up interviews with the most senior officials, the next step for Mueller's team will be to write a prosecutorial memorandum to evaluate the law and the facts and, based on that, make a recommendation, said Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department trial attorney who's now a white-collar defense lawyer with Cole Schotz P.C.
"Traditionally when you are interviewing people at that level you are doing so at the end of the investigation," Weinstein said. "They have already established what they think are the facts and are now looking to see if these individuals are going to provide consistency with those facts or possibly take a different view of what the special counsel has."
"They will have a meeting to discuss what they have, whether the facts revealed a violation of the law and, if the answer is yes, does it justify bringing charges or a referral to Congress for a filing of some obstruction," he said. "Unless something earth-shattering comes out, Mueller is likely already thinking through what his next step is, and that could take a couple weeks."
Author information: Bloomberg's Billy House and Steven T. Dennis contributed.